What Happened to Immigration? Reports of the issue’s demise are greatly exaggerated

By Mark Krikorian on February 7, 2008

National Review Online, February 7, 2008

Now that Amnesty John appears to have the Republican nomination sewn up, the pro-McCain commentariat is seeking to rewrite the lessons of last summer’s epic battle over immigration in the Senate. That unprecedented outpouring of popular outrage, which stopped cold the combined force of all of America’s elite institutions, clearly demonstrated the arrival of immigration as a potent political issue.

With the recent primary victories of Ted Kennedy’s amnesty co-conspirator, supporters of the McCain approach are crowing that last summer’s humiliating defeat was just a flash in the pan, driven by noisy troublemakers who can now safely be ignored. Jennifer Rubin at Contentions claims that immigration “has had a perfect record of irrelevance,” while Richelieu at the Weekly Standard smirks that “hanging out with the anti-immigrant Bund seems to be a kiss of death.”

Even our own David Frum, an immigration critic himself, is afraid that “A McCain win will be interpreted as a repudiation of the case for immigration restriction” — if the Senate’s most outspoken exponent of open borders can survive a Republican presidential primary, then almost no position on immigration is untenable in Republican debate.

Obviously, McCain’s successes are being interpreted in this way, but is that reading of the situation defensible? I would argue that it is not.

Immigration is certainly not “the most important issue in the history of the planet,” as John Podhoretz wrote sarcastically last month. In selecting a candidate, voters consider a variety of factors, including (but certainly not limited to) political positions. Moreover, even when political positions prominently figure into a decisions made by voters, the importance of certain issues relative to the other issues in play varies from voter to voter.

Historically, immigration has not typically been an issue of prominence. Over the past few years, however, that has begun to change; this constitutes a sign of the increasing political saliency of immigration. A sign of that saliency is precisely the tailspin that McCain’s campaign went into after the amnesty debacle-money dried up, his staff hemorrhaged, and his reporter friends started writing him off. McCain’s subsequent comeback is a testament to many things, but the very fact that such a comeback was even necessary demonstrates the potency of the issue.

Moreover, McCain’s move to the right on immigration (at least rhetorically) since the failure of his amnesty bill provides further evidence of the sustained significance of immigration, a move that is manifested by his pledge to secure the borders “first” (though the corollary is that he would then have an amnesty, something people often don’t hear). As John O’Sullivan notes, “one of the endearing things about McCain is his inability to pander in a convincing way,” so many people don’t believe his claims to have “seen the light” on immigration. On the other hand, many do. For instance, the California exit polls showed that 29 percent of those who favored mass deportation of illegals as the solution to illegal immigration voted for McCain. (Deportation supporters made up a plurality — 38 percent — of California Republican primary voters.) With most people completely unaware of McCain’s deeply held ideological multiculturalism, it’s no surprise that voters tuning into the race only a few days before the contest could be taken in by McCain’s pretense.

The rest of the Republican field further bolsters the claim that the immigration issue resonates with voters. Initially, Reps. Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter seemed the only hawkish candidates on immigration; however, the rest of the candidates quickly followed suit. Romney, after seeming open to amnesty in 2005, came out against it and repeatedly attacked Giuliani for presiding over a sanctuary city while mayor of New York. Giuliani saw that he needed to sound tough, so he came out against the Senate amnesty bill last summer and told audiences, “I could end illegal immigration in three years.” Mike Huckabee’s comments as Arkansas governor in support of illegal immigrants led many to think that he would clone McCain on the issue — but instead he modeled his immigration platform on an article I’d written for National Review. Fred Thompson explicitly promoted “attrition through enforcement” and, along with Huckabee, actually proposed significant reductions in legal immigration, marking the first time in generations that such has happened in a presidential campaign.

Without immigration as a key issue, Romney would have been an asterisk in California. As Steve Sailer has pointed out, illegal immigration was the most important issue for 29 percent of the state’s Republican primary voters (second only to the economy at 33 percent) and Romney clobbered McCain 45-25. (The Hispanic vote in California, meanwhile, was very divided, with McCain underperforming at only 35 percent, compared to his statewide total of 42 percent.)

Immigration has certainly not been a “magic bullet” for any of the candidates. Opposition to amnesty couldn’t compensate, for instance, for Romney’s apparent phoniness, or for Thompson’s seeming lack of enthusiasm for campaigning. On the other hand, Huckabee’s adoption of a clear, detailed immigration-control platform has certainly helped compensate for his earlier pro-illegal immigrant comments.

There is little substantive disagreement on the Democratic side, but even there, Hillary Clinton quickly backed away from her support of driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. Additionally, during the Hollywood debate with Obama, Clinton (briefly) acknowledged the economic effects of immigration on black Americans (and nonetheless captured more than two-thirds of the Hispanic primary vote). In addition, former Clinton White House operative Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who orchestrated the Democratic takeover of the House in 2006, is telling his candidates to inoculate themselves by moving right on immigration.

All this means that the reports of the immigration issue’s demise are greatly exaggerated. The Senate’s most outspoken exponent of open borders has indeed survived a Republican presidential primary. But McCain’s immigration position will contribute to his defeat in November for two reasons: first, many conservative, pro-sovereignty voters will simply stay home; and second, since his immigration views are the same as both his potential opponents, he will be denied an important line of attack against them in the general election campaign.

I’ll give Emanuel the last word:

“For the American people, and therefore, all of us, it’s emerged as the third rail of American politics. And anyone who doesn’t realize that isn’t with the American people.”

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.